Ian McEwan is an often beguiling player of the guessing games that define the brand of fiction he writes. He revels in the challenge to outwit, if not outright sabotage the reader’s anticipation of plot, and to imagine and believably render the cogitations and anticipations of the imagined minds that populate it.
In Nutshell, McEwan has set himself a fairly formidable set of parameters in this regard. With comic improbability he has a late-term in-utero baby narrate the unfolding of a murder plot based solely on what he overhears of the outside world. His unfaithful mother, Trudy, and his usurping, opportunistic uncle, Claude, have decided on a poisonous plan to do away with Trudy’s husband, the baby’s father, John Cairncross. Cairncross, a respected small publisher and poet of under-recognised talent has already been ousted from his own decaying home, and the unborn child wants nothing more than to overthrow the usurper and restore his father to his rightful family seat alongside the mother he instinctively loves.
This ante-natal Hamlet is a singularly vivid narrator. While the capacity of any foetus to not only hear, but to actively listen and respond to human voices in-utero is in fact well-established, McEwan, thankfully, doesn’t attempt to experiment with the literal representation of pre-linguistic consciousness. Rather his narrator is able to understand the resonations of language through maternal-embodiment and the humours of the uterine wall both with a literal and literary ear.
Based on this already-rich command of language, thanks also in part to his poet-father, he is able to both evoke a picture of the world outside (he imagines his mother as “blonde and braided like a Saxon warrior, beautiful beyond realism’s reach, slender but for me, near naked, sunnily pink on the upper arms”) and colour it with radio – and podcast-informed cultural colour. His knowledge of wines, thanks in no small measure to Trudy’s penchant for the anaesthetic doses of the stuff she downs in the face of the terrible price she is willing to pay for love and material gain, is enviable.
By so clearly mirroring the trajectory of the Danish prince’s anguish at being unable to act and set right what is out of joint (says baby early on: “Don’t waste your precious days idle and inverted. Get born, and act!”) McEwan plays a game that revolves around the reader guessing whether or not the author really might be so daring as to eschew Shakespeare’s original plot. Will the world end up being re-set right, with Fortinbras stepping into the final power vacuum, or will his Gertrude and Claudius get away with it?
The fact that it is a foetus’ exaggerated, impossible subjectivity being imagined here, effectively giving voice to what is perhaps the most voiceless, the most disempowered human subject of all, could be read as McEwan’s extended metaphorical contribution to contemporary debates around identity politics. You see, McEwan seems to be saying, it’s possible to imagine any alterity at all. McEwan even manages to shoehorn into the foetus’ cogitations an overheard defence of the virtues of western civilisation that eventually articulates into a sarcastic rant that rolls its eyes at the self-centred oversensitivity and censoriousness of safe space and no-platforming campus politics.
What emerges through this is to lay bare one of the lesser-considered implications of narration. Trudy and John‘s unborn child, their Hamlet, is racked his inability to act in the face of a murder plot and in that vacuum he has nothing left to do but narrate. His part-parroting of the opinions of the world as he overhears them can only ever be a precursor or a postscript to the chaos of events. They will never be the events themselves. Narration, for Hamlet, and for McEwan, is no substitute for action. Always a curious, but inevitable position for a novelist to take.
Author: Ian McEwan
Publisher: Jonathan Cape